Psychoanalytic Therapy: Definition & Techniques

By Sarah Fader |Updated June 6, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

What is psychoanalytic therapy? Also known as psychodynamic psychotherapy or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, this type of therapy focuses on dialogue and helping bring repressed emotions to the surface that may date back to childhood. This field remains a popular therapy method, even in online counseling settings, and is often used to treat mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Ultimately, this approach explores the underlying reasons why one is experiencing mental difficulties and then finds healthy ways of moving forward and regaining a strong sense of self. Continue reading to learn if this method is right for you and how it can help you.

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Wondering If Psychoanalysis Therapy Is Right For You?

How Psychoanalytic Therapy Works


The history of psychodynamic psychotherapy is rooted in the subject of psychoanalysis. The origins of the psychoanalytic approach were developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 1890s when he was working in a children’s hospital. He noticed that many children had symptoms with no apparent causes and that some mental processes were subconscious. He later received a grant to work with Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneer in the nascent field of psychology. Charcot had developed a hypnotism technique to help patients experiencing hysteria.


Freud continued to study hypnosis and went on to work with a colleague named Josef Breuer. Breuer and Freud collaborated on a book called "Studies on Hysteria," and Freud developed his talk therapy and ideas of psychoanalysis. He proposed that simply talking about problems could significantly relieve the anguish of individuals experiencing emotional distress. The therapist-patient relationship thus builds on dialogue to help clients heal from emotional problems.

Many of Sigmund Freud's theories are considered outdated or even flat-out erroneous by modern American psychologists and psychoanalysts in the United States and beyond. However, the ideas and theories behind psychoanalysis have been profoundly impactful on the field of psychology. The psychoanalytic theory that he founded continues to have many adherents, and many people have experienced great relief from the basic methods of psychoanalytic therapy outlined above. Furthermore, his theories have not only benefitted psychology but the fields of social work and psychiatric nursing.

Psychoanalytic Therapy Practice

Psychodynamic therapy is the classic form of therapy portrayed by media and popular culture. In this type of therapy, patients are encouraged to explore a full range of emotions and to become more aware of their unconscious thoughts. Furthermore, the psychoanalytic therapist will conduct in-depth talk therapy to explore past experiences of their patients to see how they may be affecting their unconscious thoughts and feelings.

Moreover, psychoanalytic psychotherapists attempt to pull out repressed memories and unconscious feelings and locate their origin. Psychoanalytic theory revolves around the idea that many emotional responses are due to unconscious forces, and therefore need to be brought into conscious awareness. Treatment and healing can occur once these feelings and thoughts are brought to the conscious mind.

Additionally, this therapy process delves into attachment theory to further make sense of our previous bonds and traumas to explain our current mental state.

Active listening and note-taking are two of the key techniques of any psychoanalytic therapist. During psychoanalytic therapy sessions, the patient will spend time talking about their problems and, as prompted by the therapist, their childhood and events that may have led to their current issues. The therapist will then try to find self-destructive patterns and maladaptive thinking—for example, repetitive behaviors and thoughts that may show a patient are "stuck" in a particular mode of thought or situation. Part of psychoanalytic therapy's purported strength is that patients must work through their mental turmoil and traumas by speaking about them. This is sometimes referred to as the "talking cure."

Psychoanalytic Therapy’s Effectiveness

Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy. For example, World Psychiatry conducted a meta-analysis from only high-quality sources on the results of psychoanalytic therapy. In many cases, psychoanalytic therapy was found to be just as effective or more than other therapies in treating depressive symptoms. Another article published by American Psychologist conducted a meta-analysis and concluded that psychoanalytic psychotherapy often resulted in the significant reduction of depressive symptoms as well as symptoms related to personality disorders and other mood disorders.

The latest evidence-based research, reviewed and conducted by medical reviewers and board-certified physicians, continues to boast the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy for a variety of conditions. Therefore, it seems that most medical reviewers confirm that this type of therapy is an important treatment option in the field of clinical psychology. You can find more information about the latest evidence-based research on psychoanalytic therapy from the American Psychoanalytic Association.

Who Can Benefit From Psychoanalytic Therapy?

The primary goal of psychodynamic psychotherapy is to significantly reduce the symptoms of various mental health conditions. As mentioned before, many studies have concluded that psychodynamic therapy is effective for those living with depressive symptoms. However, people with anxiety, panic, personality disorders, eating disorders, disorders with somatic symptoms, or other stress-related conditions may see benefits as well.

However, even if you do not live with any of these conditions but still experience issues with your current behavior or psychological distress, you may be able to find treatment and help through psychodynamic psychotherapy. After all, many emotional responses and self-destructive behavior are revealed through challenges in interpersonal relationships and the stressors of daily life. Therefore, you may find help and treatment for your feelings and unconscious thoughts through this form of therapy.

However, before choosing a form of therapy, it is always best to seek professional medical advice as to the best treatment plan for you. Therefore, you should talk with a qualified therapist about your symptoms and concerns before deciding on a certain type of therapy. It’s important to also gain as much information as possible about the psychoanalytic psychotherapy process during the initial consultation to see if this is the best practice for you.

Psychoanalytic Techniques and Concepts 

Free Association And Dream Interpretation

One technique used in psychoanalytic therapy has to do with wordplay. It's the "free association" technique where a client will say the first thing that comes to mind when the therapist gives them a word or phrase. In psychoanalytic therapy, the therapist will then interpret what they're saying and the reasons underpinning these associations.

Another technique is called dream interpretation or dream analysis, which involves a client recounting a dream or dreams that they have had, particularly recurring or especially vivid or powerful dreams. Building on the subconscious theory, the psychoanalyst will consider what may be causing these dreams to emerge. For example, there may be repressed memories or subconscious urges expressed.

Psychoanalytic therapy considers dreams to be powerful manifestations of our subconscious mind. For example, you might not be fully aware that you're harboring resentment towards your mother, but you then have a vivid dream about how angry you are at her.

When you're in psychoanalytic therapy, your analyst can help you understand the forces behind dreams that may seem confusing or even disturbing. The therapist will try to home in on repetitive themes and objects that may be symbolic. For example, if you repeatedly dream that you are flying far away, your therapist may interpret this as you wanting to detach from your current situation in life. In general, your psychoanalyst will be well equipped to help you make sense of the dreams and how they can clue you in on your subconscious mind.

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In psychoanalytic therapy, patients discuss individuals who have hurt them or otherwise profoundly affected them. This provides the therapist an entryway to discuss the idea of "transference." This key notion of psychoanalytic therapy involves taking feelings that may involve one key person and then redirecting them to another. To give a basic example, someone may have issues with a parent and then transfer their feelings onto their significant other.

Therapists who work in the psychoanalytic model will work with patients to break down transference to understand why they are doing this and how to break out of this habit. In this way, psychoanalysts can use the concept of transference analysis as a technique for improving maladaptive thinking and behaviors.

Freudian Slips

A psychoanalyst endeavors to help patients explore memories and personal narratives in detail, analyzing them while doing so. The therapist will look for some common themes in the patient's stories. One aspect of Freud's legacy is the so-called "Freudian slip," which occurs when people accidentally reveal something significant while discussing something else altogether.

Here's one basic example of a Freudian slip. Let's say you recently went through a breakup with your boyfriend, whose name is Joe. Even though you're heartbroken, you're trying to get out there and start going on dates. Nonetheless, you're still preoccupied thinking about Joe. You get to therapy, and your analyst asks, "How did your date go?" If instead of saying the name of your new date, you say "Joe" instead, this Freudian slip indicates that you're still enamored with and broken up over Joe.

Wondering If Psychoanalysis Therapy Is Right For You?

Further Techniques

Psychoanalytic therapy can be unnerving. Its goal is to make us confront our unconscious mind and the uncomfortable reasons why we may be experiencing mental health issues and problems in our life. With that said, it can also be highly therapeutic, which is why this kind of therapy continues to be practiced worldwide.

When you're in psychoanalytic therapy, you will likely discover your unique defense mechanisms with the help of mental healthcare professionals. These mechanisms occur when we seek to protect ourselves from potential harm or pain. While this sounds like an important function, it can sometimes be maladaptive, which is unproductive.

Overcoming Defense Mechanisms

You'll discover what your defense mechanisms are in psychoanalytic therapy, and once you know what they are, you'll be able to deal with situations in a constructive manner rather than a maladaptive one. Above all, psychoanalytic therapy provides you with a space where you can feel free to share your inner emotions and past traumas. It's a safe space where your therapist will dialogue with you to find the underlying causes of your mental health issues.

Psychoanalyst Responsibilities

A psychoanalyst provides therapy using psychoanalytic theory. They're looking for patterns within what the patient is saying. You might not be aware, but many of us repeatedly speak about the same issues. You may have unresolved problems from a divorce, for example. Or perhaps you are hanging on to resentment from a conflict you had with your mother as a teenager. The psychoanalyst will be listening carefully to how you discuss these sources of conflict and emotional turmoil so that they can assist you in breaking out of this obsessive, repetitive way of thinking.

A good psychoanalyst will be an exceptional listener in psychoanalytic therapy whose observations prove helpful to your recovery from your current and past emotional difficulties. They will provide a key third-party perspective that will enable them to see things in a more objective, psychoanalytically informed way that you may not be able to. If they are licensed, they have a responsibility to act in every patient's best interest, so it is always best to pursue a licensed analyst if you are interested in psychoanalytic therapy.

How To Find A Therapist Who Conducts Psychoanalytic Therapy

Any psychoanalyst worth considering should have a great deal of education and specific training in psychoanalytic theory, both of which include the latest theories and methods. They should also have experience practicing psychoanalytic theory, which sometimes occurs in the institute or institution where they received their training. Finally, the therapist should be licensed to practice psychoanalytic therapy—if this isn't the case, you should steer clear of them. You can learn more about what makes a qualified psychoanalyst by reviewing information from the American Psychoanalytic Association.

It is also essential to note the importance of the therapeutic relationship in this practice. Since the therapist helps you dig deep and gain insight into your past experiences in psychodynamic psychotherapy, it is important to find a therapist that you trust. You may have to try multiple psychoanalytic psychotherapists before finding the right one.


Your mental health matters just as much as your physical well-being. That's where online therapy can help. Whether you're looking for psychoanalytic therapy or a different form of therapy, you can find an excellent online therapist through BetterHelp. These licensed mental health experts will help you figure out what the best form of therapy is for you and will help support you throughout the healing process. Consider choosing an online treatment to start feeling better today.

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